Inside the Comey and Sessions Hearings

The view from the back of the room as Former FBI Director James B. Comey prepares to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, June 8, 2017. The people on computers in the foreground are mostly journalists. Directly behind Comey are security personnel and invited guests. ©David Butow

At 7:45 a.m. Washington time, more than two hours before the world will get its first glimpse of James Comey since his firing by President Donald Trump, there is a buzz in the large hearing room where he will appear. TV technicians, photographers, police officers, Capitol workers and others are fine -tuning the details of their respective responsibilities. Remote cameras are test fired, and checked again. Most everything in the room has been set up the afternoon before.

Two young Senate staffers meticulously place pens, note pads and glasses of water on the long curved table at by the seats of the the sixteen Senators on the committee. At t-minus 30 minutes there is near-silence and a new energy fills the space.

I’m fresh here, having worked on Capitol Hill for only a couple of weeks, photographing the whirl-wind of activity as the three branches of government wage battles through bureaucracy, media and today, though a solemn but unpredictable event. Even among jaded journalists there seems to be a reverence for this moment. A week before, I was in California covering the first game of the NBA Finals and though the volume in the Oracle Arena was 100 times louder, the excitement here is more palpable. No one is sure what the former FBI director will say.

Minutes before the start of the Comey hearing, Jim Risch, Republican Senator from Idaho greets Democratic Senator from California Dianne Feinstein as Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio looks on. June 8, 2017 ©David Butow

The 30 or so photographers - culled days ago from the long list of those credentialed for Congress - have staked out spots along a line of tape laid in a semi-perimeter four feet from the desk where Comey will sit. We wait there, occasionally peeling away to photograph the Senators up-close as they stroll in and greet each other.

Just after 10 o’clock there is a murmur, then the room goes silent as the 6-foot-8 Comey enters. In the pack you hear nothing but the motor drives of the cameras. This may be history but now I am thinking only about proper camera exposure, focus, composition and mostly about finding a clear view.

After shaking hands with the two committee chairmen, Comey immediately sits down. He is expressionless, motionless and stares straight ahead with a Zen-like calm. A half a minute or so later the gavel clacks down and our time around the desk is up.

During his two-hour testimony, Former FBI Director James Comey took only a few sips of water. ©David Butow

With that sound, the pack of semi-feral photojournalists, competitive but pleasantly collegial, obediently retreats to the pre-arranged spots in front of the Senators where we will sit on the carpet, shoulder to shoulder, for the the next couple of hours. We focus on every gesture of the hands and nuanced look in the eye. We vary the composition and angles to the extent we can, sometimes shooting tight, sometimes wide. Periodically, a photographer will crawl on hands and knees and head out of the “well,” as it’s called, to transmit pictures and to try other views from special cutout decks around the room.

The challenge is to make photographs that rise to the level of the event. It’s an impossible task in my view, but the pleasure of working here goes beyond creating images, it’s about having a front row seat to such significant and dramatic events.

Stenographs using devices similar to court reporters record every hearing. ©David Butow

On days when there are no major hearings scheduled, you still might see the Secretary of State or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff up on the Hill testifying before another committee. This is the more normal routine of Washington when the various branches of government intersect. Some pictures of those activities follow.

Photographers crowding the table as a senate staffer places a name card for Attorney General Sessions before his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 13. ©David Butow
Attorney General Jeff Sessions gets up from the desk and leaves the room after his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 13, 2017 ©David Butow
At a hearing with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before the Senate Budget Committee, these State Department Staffers sat directly behind Tillerson. ©David Butow
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves a hearing before the Senate Budget Committe. On the left of the photo is one of the security officers who accompanies all high level members of government when they appear on Capitol Hill. The hand on the right side of the frame is of a Capitol staffer who ushered Tillerson and his detail to and from the room. Members of the public are allowed in these hearings and in this moment Tillerson is reacting to a woman who has asked to take a photograph with him. ©David Butow
Senator John McCain is trailed by staffers and reporters as he leaves the subway that goes between the Capitol and various offices buildings. These area has become a stakeout for reporters and camera crews hoping to catch comments from senators during the fast-paced events of the last few weeks. ©David Butow
The morning President Trump’s budget proposal was released, a photo opporunity for stills and television was set up in an office building on Capitol Hill. ©David Butow
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders walks towards a room where he, along with other Senators, will recieve a close briefing on the Russia investigation. ©David Butow

A version of the article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 16, 2017. You can see that here.

©David Butow
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